'Dinner in America': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Spicy and sweet.

Playing misfits who find one another in the desert of suburban America, Kyle Gallner and Emily Skeggs star in writer-director Adam Carter Rehmeier's comedy with a punk rock vibe.

A throwback to grungy-edgy youth movies from the late 1980s-'90s — like the ones Gregg Araki used to make, but with a more mainstream-friendly warmth underneath all the sneering — the lo-fi feature Dinner in America offers up a rom-com for stoners. Writer-director-editor Adam Carter Rehmeier seems to have evolved away from the torture-porn of his 2011 shocker The Bunny Game, exploring his softer side with this salty-sweet love story featuring Kyle Gallner as a punk rocker/small-time drug dealer who falls for his number one fan, played by Emily Skeggs. The engine idles while the two protagonists are maneuvered into place for their meet-cute, but once that happens and the leads' chemistry supercharges the motor, it really lets rip.

Set in a non-specific time period which could be any year from the early '90s onwards (I can’t remember anyone using a cellphone, for instance, which is the usual giveaway), the story unfolds in some unremarkable burg in suburban Michigan. Simon (Gallner, American Sniper) is first met having an adverse reaction to a drug he's being paid to trial alongside Beth (Hannah Marks), but they're both let go and shorted on the payment.

When Beth offers to fellate Simon at her house, he agrees and ends up sharing a meal with her superficially straight family, the first of several dinner scenes throughout, hence the title. But Beth's cougar-y mom Betty (Lea Thompson) quickly seduces Simon first, and before you can say "Mrs. Robinson," it's all gone pear-shaped, resulting in lots of yelling and a departing pyromaniacal gesture from Simon. He may be a rebel with an interesting haircut and a funky moustache, but he's also a bit of an asshole, some viewers may decide at this point.

Meanwhile, across town, shy misfit Patty (Skeggs, who had a supporting role in The Miseducation of Cameron Post but is better known for her Tony-nominated performance in the Broadway musical Fun Home) is bullied on the bus by jocks who call her "retard," and suddenly fired from her job for not being pretty enough.

At home, her parents Norm and Connie (Pat Healy and Mary Lynn Rajskub) similarly treat her as if she's mentally impaired and has to be sheltered from the world, while her brother Kevin (Griffin Gluck) bickers and criticizes her incessantly. Patty's greatest joy, however, is rocking out to her favorite band, local hardcore ensemble Psyops, whose thrashy sound has her turning her bedroom into a one-woman mosh pit and then masturbating furiously. As she finishes, she takes a Polaroid and sends the snap in the mail to the band's masked lead singer, known only as John Q. Public.

Of course, it turns out that Simon is John Q., but Patty only realizes that after she helps him hide from police at her house by posing as a Bible-bashing missionaries' son. Somehow, the two end up bringing out the best in each other as their relationship blossoms. He reveals a sweeter, more protective side that shields her from bullies both outside and in her own home. She reveals real, unsuspected talent in a lovely scene where during a basement jam session with a four-track she turns a poem into a raspy-voiced but powerfully felt song, a sequence shot nearly in one take that shows off Skeggs' own impressive musical chops.

Her transformation from Manic Pixie Special-Needs Kid into budding Hope Sandoval-like indie chanteuse may be a bit of a credibility stretch, but if anyone can sell it, Skeggs can, with her incessantly mobile features and twitchy energy. Likewise, Gallner brings depth and intelligence to a character that might have otherwise been just another arrogant bad-boy clone. Together, they're like 3D animated figures in a flat cartoon landscape, sharper and better drawn than anything else in the picture.

Production companies: Red Hour Films, PSH Collective, Bee-Hive Productions, Burn Later Productions, Atlas Industries, Covert Creative Group
Cast: Kyle Gallner, Emily Skeggs, Griffin Gluck, Pat Healy, Mary Lynn Rajskub, David Yow, Hannah Marks, Nick Chinlund, Lea Thompson
Director-screenwriter: Adam Carter Rehmeier
Producers: Ben Stiller, Nicky Weinstock, Ross Putman, Dave Hunter, John Covert, Sam Slater
Executive producers: Ben Stiller, Nicky Weinstock, Ross Putman, Dave Hunter, John Covert, Sam Slater
Director of photography: Jean-Philippe Bernier
Production designer: Francesca Palombo
Costume designer: Anais Castaldi, Hannah Greenblatt
Music: John Swihart
Editor: Adam Carter Rehmeier
Casting: Susan Paley Abramson, Justine Hempe
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Visit Films

106 minutes